19. And virgins were gathered a second time and Mordechai sat at the king’s gate.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) says the king asked advice of Mordechai to help get Esther to open up regarding her background. Surprisingly, Mordechai’s advice was to make Esther jealous by making another contest to pick a wife, similar to the first. Nevertheless, after this additional contest, she still did not reveal her lineage, as it says in the following verse (2:20). In his commentary on the Talmud there, Rashi explains that Mordechai actually hoped the king would find a more suitable wife, and would leave Esther alone.
The Ben Ish Chai suggests that it is possible Mordechai was seeking assurance that Esther’s being chosen by the king came from a Divine source and was part of H-Shem’s master-plan.
The Malbim, however, sees this gathering as Achashverosh’s attempting to seem like a nice guy by gathering the virgins with whom he had not yet had relations, and releasing them!
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) says that Achashverosh made a party, and yet Esther did not reveal her identity. He then relaxed the taxes, and Esther did not reveal her identity. He finally gave her gifts, and she still did not reveal her identity. The Me’am Loez and the Malbim point out that these were meant to work psychologically. The first tactic was meant to show how loving he was. The second trick as to emphasize her generosity. The third tactic was meant to show, through his generosity to all the nations, how much more-so he would reward generously whichever nation from which Esther hails.
The Malbim explains that the women referred to here are Achashverosh’s other wives and concubines, of which the king of Persia had a few. He therefore loved Esther more than them.
The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:11) teaches that this verse’s distinguishing between women and virgins implies that Achashverosh’s beauty contest ensnared the most beautiful women – without considering whether they were married or not.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) adds that, with Esther, Achashverosh could feel he was with a married woman or a virgin. The Maharal explains that this means Esther could be like either kind of woman, innocent and experienced. Esther was experienced because she was a married woman (as she was married to Mordechai, as mentioned previously), but she was innocent because she was the “rebbetzin” of the great Mordechai, not the plaything of some deviant.
The Ohel Moshe and Shaul U’Meishiv point out that the other women in the contest came before the king bragging of their lineage in an attempt to win the king’s heart. Esther’s being secretive about her lineage actually made her more mysterious and attractive to the king.
The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 7a) uses this verse to suggest we usually count the years from Rosh HaShanah every Tishrei, but we count the individual months from Nissan. The names of the months we use are not even Jewish in origin (Yerushalmi, Rosh HaShanah 1:2), so why do we use them? By mentioning the names, Ramban writes (on Shemos 12:2) we remind ourselves that we are in exile, still awaiting Mashiach, speedily in our day.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) says that Achashverosh and Esther met in this month because Teves is a naturally colder month, and the warmth of bodies would be more enjoyable. This way, Achashverosh would be naturally predisposed to like Esther more than the other women. In this seemingly “natural” manner, H-Shem works His miracles.
The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 6:9) suggests a number of reasons for this verse’s repeating Esther’s description. One opinion (that of R’ Yuda) is that people considered Esther an icon (work of art representing a person) and was liked by all.
Another opinion (R’ Nechemya’s) agrees that, in comparison to other women, Esther was the most beautiful.
However, the Rabbis there say that Esther found favor in the eyes of the “upper ones and the lower ones.” In other words, she was liked by angels and men, as it says in Mishlei (3:4) “be’eyney elohim v’adam” (“in the eyes of angels and men”). Torah Temimah explains that people care about appearances, but angels care about character. They saw in Esther that she was gentle and had a pure character. We can perhaps add that there are people who become beautiful through their beautiful characteristics.
The Talmud (Megillah 7a and 13a) says people found a kinship with Esther because she looked as though she could belong to any nation. Ben Yehoyada says the reason for this was miraculous, and its purpose was in order for people to not be able to know that this girl raised in Mordechai’s house was of a particular group – namely, Jewish. Although some want to assert that Esther’s green color (as we’ve mentioned before) may have been a beautiful, olive complexion, this favorable view is not the way the Talmud (Megillah 15a) understands Esther’s color. Her being green effectively removed her from the Talmud’s list there of the four most beautiful women in history. The Vilna Gaon wonders why the Talmud could suggest that Esther was pallid and green if the verse (2:7) itself testifies to her beauty. He answers that Esther was indeed beautiful at one point, but turned pale from sadness having to endure Achashverosh’s harem.
The Pri Tzedek writes in his commentary on Shemos that there are different levels of love, with “chein” (“favor”) meaning a love without reason, and that is the appreciation Esther received from the people around her.
14. In the evening she would come, and in the morning she would return to the second house of women by the hand of Sha-ashgaz, eunuch of the king, guard of the concubines. [She] would not come again to the king unless she was desired by the king and he called her by name.
In this verse, one gets a glimpse into the pure evil that is Achashverosh. What we had been calling a beauty contest turns out to have been infinitely more immoral. Not only were these women gathered against their will, but after having relations with the king, one at a time, they were taken to the harem to be available – along with all of the other gathered beauties – whenever the king requested them.
The Talmud (Megillah 13a) teaches that, evil as he was, one characteristic of Achashverosh which is worthy of praise is his decision to at least not have relations in the daytime. There is a Halacha (Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’Ezer 25:5 and Orach Chaim 240:11) that a couple should ideally have intimate relations at night. This is the tznius to which the Maharal refers in regard to Achashverosh (as we said earlier).
On a more mystical level, the Zohar says that this verse is discussing how H-Shem operates in this world. Half of the elements of life refer to the Midas HaChesed, the Attribute of Kindness, and the other half refer to the Midas HaDin, the Attribute of Strict Judgment. The Midas HaDin comes before H-Shem every night requesting His judgment. It complains about all of the evil committed during the course of the past day saying, “Enough already! Punish these people already!”
The Rema contends that, since it speaks about going from evening to morning, this verse is the source of the idea of “gilgul” (“reincarnation”). Although not all Jewish authorities believe in this idea (see Saadya Gaon), those authorities that contend that it is a Jewish idea (see Ramban to Iyov 33:30) that souls may be sent back to this world to complete a task they had previously left unfinished. In “the evening” of one’s life, a person dies, and “in the morning” of the next life that person may go to the second house. He adds that if a person chooses material pleasures in life, then that person would have to redo life. In the end, the Rema’s contention is far from tenuous when one considers that the months preparing (Esther 2:12), the myrrh (ibid.), the items the girls requested (ibid. 13) – they all add up to a vapid, materialistic existence. And a material focus in life will force the soul to return after death to focus on spirituality.
The Talmud in multiple places (Megillah 13a, Shabbos 80b, Pesachim 43a, Moed Katan 9b, Menachos 86a) teaches that myrrh is either balsam, or olive oil that had not reached a third of its ripeness. Although it smelled bitter like vinegar either way, it was used to remove unwanted hair and to make the skin glowing and smooth. Like sanding a car before painting it, these women used myrrh to prepare their bodies for the beautification process. The verse’s stressing the usage of myrrh (for six straight months!) gives us a better picture of the lengths to which these beauty contestants were subjected in order to please the king.